Marijuana as a Means of Economic Development, Innovation, and Sovereign Power for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI)
By Niko Emack, M.Ed. and Dr. Thomas James Reed, Ph.D.
This piece was written as part of a consulting project for DEV-502: Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II, a joint course offered by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Graduate School of Education, and the Harvard University Native American Program.
This was not your stereotypical reservation. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is a beautiful community that could rival many traditional American towns. Their high school is state of the art, home to beautiful athletic fields and a stadium fit for conference champions. We’re told Friday night lights are a cherished tradition during the season. There are billboards all around town celebrating their state champions in high school cross country and track and field. They have a luxury movie theater and a prestigious golf course. And, we were told that the tribe’s casino is one of the most profitable Harrah’s in the country. Inside, it had shops and cuisine from all over the world; a slice of the big city all in one building. It even featured a Gordon Ramsey Kitchen. Not only is that rare for a reservation, but it’s also rare for North Carolina.
On our first night, the Qualla team took us out for dinner at the casino. They reserved a private room in the back of an upscale Italian restaurant. Qualla was undoubtedly rolling out the red carpet –– but it wasn’t for us. It was a gesture to their employees and their families. There was no clear rank or artificial barriers –– people were relaxed and sat where they wanted. You could feel the sense of family in the room. But as casual as it was, the conversation never drifted from the business. Observing everyone in the room from the CEO to the men who worked at the farm, you could tell they were obsessed with their profession.
There was no off button –– no mute, no skip, no pause. Like athletes, or wartime generals, it was clear that talking about strategy brought them so much joy – why would they ever stop? After dinner, our waiter asked for a job. He recognized the Qualla team when they walked in but waited to introduce himself until after the meal. It reminded us of the same kind of intern hustle culture you might see on Wall Street. If we didn’t know any better, we would have thought he was a plant. Listening to the way the waiter spoke about Qualla, it was clear to us the level of impact and excitement they were building in the community. We were rolling with the cool kids, there was no doubt about that.
The next morning we attended the Qualla offices. The building, a former bingo hall, was the size of a department store. It was nestled in a cluster of tribal businesses and services, a stone’s throw away from the local fire department. Without any signage, it was inconspicuous and ordinary, just an unassuming green warehouse. But inside, the place felt like a startup. A metaphorical garage, home to the next big idea. The office windows were covered in equations, written in black expo marker, almost as if the person writing it struck brilliance and only had seconds to record their vision. The organizational culture was that of a team, each person was incredibly passionate about their individual role and understood exactly how they fit inside the larger system.
All of them spoke to the same vision – the same potential for success – as if they had personal equity in Qualla’s future. For Forrest Parker, general manager of Qualla Enterprises, LLC, this is all a part of his vision to transform the cannabis industry, strengthen his people’s sovereignty, and build one of the largest marijuana dispensaries in the world. Once construction is finished, the facility will match the size and consumer experience found in Las Vegas. It will have a lounge, a drive-through, and even a sound stage for hosting events and entertainers. There was even talk of putting in an indoor water fixture.
After our tour, we drove to the farm. Pulling up to the gate, it felt like we were entering a military base. The grounds were fenced off and protected by giant loops of barbed wire. We presented our identification to the security team and they issued us bright red visitor badges. Once inside, we stocked up on water and prepared for our tour. Because of the farm’s size, our tour guide debated taking one of the all-terrain 4x4s parked out front, but we opted to walk in order to see the farm from the perspective of the people working it.
The farm is covered in white, tent-like grow houses, making the whole thing look like a sci-fi moon base. As we toured each one, we were blown away by listening to the growers talk about their craft. Before this project, we knew little about marijuana and less about agriculture. Observing the growers felt like watching doctors with their patients. They’re responsible for every aspect of the plant’s life, from seed to flower. Despite many of them being self-taught, their knowledge of mathematics, engineering, chemistry, and biology was that of university professors. It was clear to us that they were some of the best in the world at what they did.
It’s no longer a question of whether or not the marijuana industry will be successful. It’s a question of how big it will get and how much money it will make. In big cities like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, dispensaries are as common as coffee shops, sometimes competing with each other on opposite sides of the same street. Qualla Enterprises is sitting on a gold mine, leaps ahead of its competitors, and with a vision to change tribal economics forever.
Currently, marijuana is legal for medical purposes in 38 states, and North Carolina is next in line. Getting in early would be like striking oil, but not everyone in the tribe can see it yet. In conversation with us, one resident said that he’s “all for marijuana,” but thinks that the tribe is making decisions “too quickly.” He said the conversation is similar to when the tribe first got a casino. It’s important to recognize this perspective because it seems like much of the opposition comes from people debating the scale of the operation, as opposed to the operation itself. But, if Qualla can overcome its political reality, EBCI will be uniquely positioned to create jobs, revenue, and political capital for the tribe through marijuana as a means of economic development, innovation, and sovereign power.